Why Selectively Quoting Orwell's 'Objectively Pro-Fascist' Line Matters


Monday night, in a combative episode of The Independents, I kind of jumped down the throat of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton after he attempted to transplant George Orwell's famous WWII-era line that "Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist" onto the 2014 debate over whether the U.S. should have gone to war against the murderous regime of Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Orwell, I shot back, later repudiated his line, and rightly so. Bolton asked for a citation. I'll provide that and more below the whole contentious interview (which you can also read about over at Mediaite):

The first important thing about Orwell's quote, which comes from a Partisan Review polemic worth reading in full, is that it was written in August 1942—a time when Nazi Germany and its allies occupied all of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, plus almost all of northwest Africa and most of Asia's eastern shore. There had been times since the onset of Hitler's aggressively expansionist war that England felt surrounded, besieged, and alone. If ever there was a context in which one could plausibly make the claim that pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist, it would be early 1940s England.

Sure, this one's great, but … |||

Which brings us to the second important part of Orwell's quote. Those people fond of deploying it in a modern context either use and adapt the five-word phrase, "_________ is objectively pro-Fascist," or excerpt these three sentences from Orwell's essay:

Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist. This is elementary common sense. If you hamper the war effort of one side you automatically help that of the other.

Our selective Orwell fans almost never quote the very next sentence. Which is: "Nor is there any real way of remaining outside such a war as the present one." In other words, England vs. the Axis in 1942 was nobody's war of choice.

Since the end of World War II, America has never once been in a situation even remotely like England's in the early 1940s. Paradoxically, this helps explain why U.S. interventionists of all stripes lean so heavily on the rhetorical crutch of 1938-42 geopolitics: "Munich," "Neville Chamberlain," "appeasement," "objectively pro-fascist," and so on. They seek to cloak their arguments in the unearned virtue of opposing Adolf Hitler, portray their political opponents as actively working for the enemy, and above all remove the foreign policy crisis du jour from the realm of elective debate. Because if we're up against Hitler 2.0, there is no choice, except between teams "With us" and "Against us," and the only real question is where, exactly, to draw the red line beyond which the U.S. must use force in order to maintain "credibility."

… so's THIS one! |||

This interventionist Godwinning is all around you, every day. In today's Wall Street Journal, former vice president Dick Cheney writes that "appeasing our enemies" and "abandoning our allies" are "hallmarks" of the "Obama doctrine." In today's Washington Post, Michael Doran and Max Boot write:

The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability, shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful as the notion that Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler could work together for the good of Europe.

The Orwell line works not only as useful (if historically illiterate) analogy, but also as a sharp turn of phrase designed to place its targets on the defensive. But the third and most important thing about that quote is that Orwell himself repudiated it, in an essay he wrote while England was still at war with Hitler, albeit in the much more optimistic season of December 1944.

The top half of the piece is a lament for the piss-poor quality of political argumentation in contemporary England. Excerpt:

Nobody is searching for the truth, everybody is putting forward a 'case' with complete disregard for fairness or accuracy, and the most plainly obvious facts can be ignored by those who don't want to see them. The same propaganda tricks are to be found almost everywhere. It would take many pages of this paper merely to classify them, but here I draw attention to one very widespread controversial habit – disregard of an opponent's motives. The key-word here is 'objectively'.

We are told that it is only people's objective actions that matter, and their subjective feelings are of no importance. Thus pacifists, by obstructing the war effort, are 'objectively' aiding the Nazis; and therefore the fact that they may be personally hostile to Fascism is irrelevant. I have been guilty of saying this myself more than once.

Italics mine. So what's Orwell's problem with the formulation? That it conflates motive with outcome, and blinds the speaker to potentially important truths:

This is not only dishonest; it also carries a severe penalty with it. If you disregard people's motives, it becomes much harder to foresee their actions. For there are occasions when even the most misguided person can see the results of what he is doing. Here is a crude but quite possible illustration. A pacifist is working in some job which gives him access to important military information, and is approached by a German secret agent. In those circumstances his subjective feelings do make a difference. If he is subjectively pro-Nazi he will sell his country, and if he isn't, he won't.

Doubt. |||

That distinction between "motives" and "results" is crucial, particularly for the John Boltons of the world. After all, the man (like many GOP hawks) is focused like a laser beam on beating back the pernicious designs of Iran. Yet it's hard to avoid the conclusion that U.S. military intervention in Iraq has vastly strengthened Tehran's hands. Is John Bolton "objectively pro-Mullah"? I would never level such an accusation, in part because I take all of Orwell seriously.

And don't just take my hippie word for it: Eugene Volokh, to cite one person more interventionist than me, wrote approvingly of Orwell's later reconsideration in both 2002 and 2009. If it's truth you seek, you will not use "objectively pro-Fascist" to describe someone who doesn't share your enthusiasm for launching a U.S. war of choice. And call me a crazy optimist, but I still believe that there are occasions when even the most misguided person can learn from the lousy results of their actions.

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  1. Orwell should not have repudiated it Matt. He was right. The problem with using it in relation to other conflicts is that it begs the question. The quote assumes that the war against the fascist was a just war of essentially national survival. If you assume those two things (pretty fair assumptions with regards to World War II), then yes pacifists are effectively pro fascist since their inaction will contribute to a fascist take over of the nation.

    The problem here is that those are really big assumptions to make about other conflicts. If it is not a war of national survival, then the question is should we be involved at all, since if it is we have no choice but to be involved. Using this quote just assumes that it is and we have no choice but to be involved and thus begs the question.

    The quote while true as far as it goes is of little value in discussing anything but wars of national survival. If the survival of the country isn’t at stake, then refusing to intervene is not supporting a take over of the country or even expressing support for the other side of the conflict. If it were, the only way to be on the right side would be to intervene in every conflict and that is nonsense.

    1. the only way to be on the right side would be to intervene in every conflict and that is nonsense.

      Now, just a doggone minute, there, John!

      1. We do pretty much intervene in every conflict especially when dealing with oil.

    2. He was right.

      No, he wasn’t, John.

      There is no difference between what Orwell wrote and the statement, “If you are not saving my life, then you are killing me.” Obviously, I categorically reject that statement.

      This presumes that I took no action to place your life in peril and it’s only one of a decision that I choose to help you or not. Now, you could be starving or drowning in rough seas or standing in the middle of a minefield. But truthfully, it doesn’t matter.

      If I choose not to intervene with life-saving efforts, that’s my decision, for whatever the reason. If I weren’t there, you’d die regardless. But, my decision to help or not is just that: my decision. My failure to act changes nothing.

      Now that’s a pretty shitty thing to do, but with a strictly principled belief system, and pacifism is that, a system of belief, it sometimes has that outcome.

      1. Let’s say Jesus comes back and, as part of his plan, becomes president. Talking about love-your-brother, turn-the-other-cheek Jesus. He’s committed to pacifism. Does that make him pro-fascist or is he something else?

        1. He’d be the fasciest monster since fascism came to Fascitstown.

          It dovetails with a question I had, but took out above. How is compelling pacifists to assist in a war effort any different than a fanatical Muslim compelling a Christian to repudiate his beliefs or face imprisonment or death?

          1. One way to think about this is that we need some pacifists to at least partially offset our hawks, even in wartime. Some hawks are just as extreme in their way as total pacifists are. They play a role, even if they don’t control policy.

            There are realities we have to deal with, and sometimes I think people and nations are forced to deal with things violently, given the nature of other people and countries. But that doesn’t make people who want to eschew violence into supporting fascists. At worse, it might make them na?ve, but the same could be said by others who have attempted to improve human behavior over the centuries.

            1. There are realities we have to deal with, and sometimes I think people and nations are forced to deal with things violently, given the nature of other people and countries.

              No question. But once you adopt the methods of your enemy, you might as well stop fighting the war.

              I would disapprove of a neighbor who would refuse to fight in a similar situation, but I would never force him to do so. What kind of ally would he be?

              1. Like someone who had been drafted?

                1. How is that not slavery? The courts have actually ruled that the draft doesn’t fall under the 13th Amendment, yet I don’t see an exception in there:

                  Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

                  Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

                  Of course, as I’ve mentioned too many times before, this allows a loophole for enslaving anyone convicted of a crime, so I suppose you could just take the hundreds of thousands of prisoners in the U.S. and draft them.

          2. is it fasciest or fascistest ?

        2. John is wrong, but your version of Jesus is lacking. He used violence against those who were changing money inside the temple. He drove them all off with a whip and then taught the people.

          1. So he lost his temper. He didn’t blow them away with fireballs shot from his hand, now did he?

            1. He didn’t lose his temper. That was entirely just. They invaded his house and made it impossible for the foreigner to worship God.

              Basically the “govt” failed to properly use what had been entrusted them. This is SOP.

              Oh, and he did it twice.

      2. At what point is it a bit to literal to define Pacifism as “violence only in response to saving your own life”? Does that mean that a Pacifist is only such when they don’t pick up a gun until an enemy troop is ready to fire directly at them? That seems…a wee bit short sighted.

        1. At pretty much every point. If you claim to embrace violence in any form under any circumstances, you are not a pacifist. All JW is doing is renouncing the nation state. There is nothing wrong with doing that. But if you are going to do that, you should not then take advantage of the benefits conferred by membership in that state after others have to sacrifice to preserve it.

          If you don’t believe in defending the nation you live, you should leave the nation when doing so becomes essential.

          1. I’m very uncomfortable with the line of thought that we owe something more to those who fight in our wars than we do to the guy who runs the deli down the street. We are, in the end, an economic superpower and depend on that far more than we do on our military supremacy.

      3. If you live in a country and take the benefits of its laws and government and that country is engage in a war for its survival and is such that that war is just, to say you have no obligation to defend it is to say no one ever has any obligation to any group even if they voluntarily join it and even if they benefit from that association. I am sorry but I disagree.

        More importantly, very few people are actually pacifists. Being a pacifist means you renounce all violence up to and including self defense. If you embrace the concept of self defense, you are not a pacifist, you just renounce the nation state. That is fine as far as it goes, but once you do that you shouldn’t then accept benefits from being part of it or accept the benefits of others sacrificing to save it.

        If you are part of a just society and that society faces an existential threat from an unjust one, you do have a duty to help defend that society. If you don’t want to accept that duty, you should leave the country and not free load from those who accept that burden.

        1. Ah, the collectivist’s retreat. We gave you everything, even if you didn’t ask for it! Now, do as we say!

          So, by simple dint of residing in a country, it retains the right to enslave you, to the point of death, when it sees fit? Are you sure that’s the argument you want to make?

          I’m not a pacifist, so I’m not making their specific argument.

        2. So if I use the roads then I have to pay for the NSA to spy on me? Cause that’s what I just heard…

          The heck with the society. Govt can only have one mandate, to protect rights of the individual or “preserve society” (“Lonesome Stranger thought experiment”). If the society cannot be preserved well enough by simply protecting rights of the individual, then let it fall. If the rights of the individual must submit to the “society”, then there are no real rights and you cannot complain about ANY infringements.

          1. The “you live here, you reap the benefits…” argument may have made sense when emigration to a freer country wasn’t beyond the reach of most humans. It may be easier to get to the other side of the world, but the dadburned gubmints have gobbled up all the terrae nullius.

            The USA used to be where you went when you wanted to avoid being drafted by the Tsar, or when His Brittanic Majesty granted the land your family had lived on for centuries to some byblow of his. Where are we supposed to skedaddle to? Heinlein and the sons of Heinlein would have said space. That’s a long way off, and there’s a lot of gubmint standing in the way of that.

            Kevin R

        3. Ah, I love this statist fallacy:


          “If you don’t like it, why don’t you leave?”


          The most thorough response is Walter Block’s Books/Secession which explains that since freedom of association is an individual right, and individuals and their property came first, they have a right to withdraw their association and consent from the state while remaining on their own property and making whatever voluntary arrangements they wish. (DBR)

          The state is fiction?it does not exist. You cannot see borders on any unretouched satelite image. You cannot be “within” the state in the first place, so there is no state to leave. (DV)

          The entire planet is divided up among rival states. There is no place available where one can be free from busybodies claiming ownership. Therefore, your argument is really just “submit or die.” Why can’t the people who claim to be the state leave us alone instead? That would be far simpler and far more sensible. (LT)

          (The counter-question for statists:) If you love the government and the military so much, why not move to North Korea? You will be right at home. (DV)

  2. Welch if you were pro facist you wouldn’t be arguing with Bolton now would you?

    1. True. Bolton is about as fascist as they are made these days.

      1. Still haven’t seen your BitCoin-to-SNAP thing at the App Store.

        1. Huh?

          I thought shrike hated bitcoin.

      2. Well more of an international corporatist just like Obama and Hilary..

        At least Bolton does not lie as much as Hilary and Obama does about it.

        Who is putting warships in the gulf and troops in Iraq again?

  3. Still, his “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” is less embarrassing than your “Purple Rain”.

    1. Why should Welch change? Bolton is the one who sucks!

      1. That line is always a winner.

    2. Still, his “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” is less embarrassing than your “Purple Rain”.

      “Y’all know know what I’m talking about? Raise your hands!”
      Thirty years later I still don’t know what he was talking about.

      1. But you raised your hand anyway, because you didn’t want to be different.

  4. Rarely have I ever wanted to punch someone in the face as much as I wanted to punch John Bolton during that interview. I thought likable people were generally assigned as ambassadors.

    He doubled down and said that he would make the exact same decisions about invading Iraq even knowing what he knows now. He wrote an article talking about not playing the blame game and immediately proceeded to blame Obama for Iraq falling apart. He walked right up to the line of saying that Hussein had WMDs, but backed off.

    And the number of deaths resulting from invading and killing Hussein vs. not invading is a hypothetical/academic debate. We’ll never know if one option was better than the other. But the big difference is that the blood from Hussein killing his own people wouldn’t be on our hands.

    1. Well, he was Ambassador to the UN, so not really an actual ambassador. I would imagine that post is seen as more of a sinecure than anything.

      1. What Tonio said. UN Ambassador is sort of….unusual.

        1. Not if you see him as a conservative middle finger to the institution.

          1. Ha! Good one.

        2. Well, it is and it isn’t, Helvetian. All those guys who rep their countries at the UN are called ambassadors, and I assume they have the full diplomatic rank that ambassadors to actual nations do.

          However, it rankles me that the UN is granted that level of legitimacy.

          We also have an ambassador to the Vatican, which everyone pretends is a real country.

  5. Monday night, in a combative episode of The Independents, I kind of jumped down the throat of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton after he attempted to transplant George Orwell’s famous WWII-era line that “Pacifism is objectively pro-Fascist”…


    But, seriously, Bolton deserved that. Good for you.

    1. I would’ve bolded “kind of.” He leapt at Bolton with gusto, “kind of” makes it sound like he was squishy.

      1. I wish I’d have been watching that.

  6. For once, a guest who deserved being interrupted. Don’t even let him *try* to sideline the debate into “you’re pro-fascist!” “no I’m not!” “yes you are!” Fuck that noise, if you’ll pardon my francais.

    1. The hell with Bolton, he wanted to engage in a debate with his opponents about whether they were pro-fascist or not. Good for Welch that he didn’t just go “no, we’re not!” which would have played right into Bolton’s hands. He took the offensive into Bolton’s territory and didn’t let go, and now Bolton’s ignorance is spread all over the internet for everyone to see.

      Good for Welch, he earned his pay.

      1. ^THIS.

        Plus, I learned something I didn’t already know about Orwell.

      2. Would have been better if he simply called Orwell a fucking idiot for saying all pacifists were fascists.

  7. As a libertarian i would like to say i do not support Suddamn Hussain who was a Stalinist dictator…also I do not support Orwell who was a national socialist….ie a fascist.

    1. I wouldn’t support Orwell if he were trying to run a country or something like that, but I can selectively approve of the writings of a dead guy.

      1. I wouldn’t support Orwell if he were trying to run a country or something like that

        How about if like Bolton he was urging war?

        How about if in his writing he was urging war in the hopes that war would help transform England into a nationalist socialist state?

        Is that something “like that”?

  8. If that is representative of what the Independents is like, I don’t feel like I’m missing much by not watching it. No offense Matt et al, but people yelling over each other doesn’t strike me as the most constructive debate format.

    1. Just monitor the comments, Hugh. You know, like with the SOTU Address.

    2. Their problem was inviting this retard onto their show and giving him air.

      Now, in the case of Wolfowitz, the blame is on the other side – Kennedy didn’t let him make out his case and just attacked him. And the Wolfster wasn’t calling libertarians pro-fascists on their own show. *He’s* the one with the right to complain about his prowar views getting shut out of the conversation.

    3. That episode was excessively screamy to the point of being uncomfortable at times. They aren’t all that bad.

      1. This is a rare case where the guest was the one at fault. Usually, it’s the host (meaning Kennedy) who disrespects the guest.

        But as for Bolton, sorry, if you’re a guest on someone’s show and you call them pro-fascist, expect to get called on it. You want to play dirty, don’t whine if they pay you in your own coin.

        1. Eh, the segment with the shrink was also pretty intolerable. Kmele was uncharacteristically weak with his response (paraphrasing) “I don’t have any studies to back up my position, but I think your studies are wrong” and Kennedy repeating over and over again that it wasn’t in the DSM-V was counter-productive.

          I’m a skeptic on the DSM for, I think, obvious reasons.

          1. Actually, you’re right, this is when I turned it off. That interview was uncomfortably bad.

        2. His entire argument was “Tits or GTFO.”

      2. I had to turn it off during that interview. I like The Independents because it’s usually not like that.

      3. More to the point, why would I watch if all debates aren’t conducted while Matt and Kmele are sporking?

    4. but people yelling over each other doesn’t strike me as the most constructive debate format.

      In Matt’s defense, if he hadn’t stood up, it would have been Bolton yelling over everyone else.

    5. You’re not missing anything.

  9. Nice work.

    You guys need to stop having Bolton on The Independents. He has made a career out of making arguments in support of political positions of other people. In other words, the position he advocates with regard to international politics is a constant and his job is merely to make a good argument in support of it. He will never concede, because his position is not contingent on being correct, moral, or even defensible. He’s like a paid pro-Israel PR person.

  10. Should have gone with “Call me pro-fascist one more time and I’ll sock you in the jaw, you queer.”

    1. “I will slap your mustache to death, Wilford Dimley.”

  11. Finally watched the video….Holy shit, Bolton was a sneering little bitch.

    “If you don’t clap for Tinkerbell, then you might as well be setting her on fire.”

  12. It’s also worth noting that Americans wouldn’t use the Nazi-Chamberlain-Munich-appeasment analogies if we HAD ever been faced with a similar situation more recently.

    We use that because that is our only recent historical experience with a war not of our choice. Nobody drags out Saddam Hussein or Manuel Noriega as a scary example to compare things to.

    That said, I think the world right now is probably at the most dangerous point it’s been at since the Cuban missile crisis. And I’m not just talking about ISIS. We’ve got Russia getting all revanchist and invading the Ukraine at the same time. The shits hitting the fan all at once.

    1. I’m sure ODIN can keep ISIS in check.

      1. I don’t know, she seems to have some impressive powers –

        1. It is peculiar that an militant group of Islamic fundamentalists would name itself after an pagan goddess.

          1. I suspect that the arab language acronym for that org isn’t the same as the name of the goddess. Anyone know?

            Also, if they are fundies would they even know the names of the gods of their pre-Mohammed ancestors? My impression is that they’re pretty freaked out by anything non-islamic religions, particularly non-abrahamic ones.

            1. Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was illegal to even talk about pre-Islamic religions in places like Saudi Arabia.

            2. I don’t know what their acronym spells but I’ve read a few pieces that refer to them as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, rather than the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

  13. Bulgaria, Hungary, Italy, and Romania were not occupied by the Axis, their internationally recognized governments willingly joined it.

  14. The European theater was a War of Choice for the US in WW2. Simply not fighting the Nazis after their foolish (strategically, for them) choice to declare war, would have led to easily getting a peace with them (while they, of course, leisurely rolled over a starving Britain).

    (Arguably the US could have easily avoided actual war in the Pacific simply by letting Japan have Asia, too.)

    The problem with the “but WW2!” arguments about intervention is that at no point was the US in existential threat during the war; it was a “war of choice” all the time.

    And a damned fine one to choose, I think.

    Libertarianism does not require isolationism or the mistaken expansion of the non-aggression principle to States as opposed to individuals.

    And with Rand (the only place!) I tend to hold that authoritarian States are inherently illegitimate and deserve, nay, call out for toppling.

    But, hey, we’re not all isolationists or pacifists.

    1. Libertarianism is the NAP –

      There is no room for nation states in a libertarian world.

  15. The idea that the United States, a nation bent on defending democracy and safeguarding stability, shares a common interest with the Islamic Republic of Iran, a revolutionary theocracy that is the No. 1 state sponsor of terrorism in the world, is as fanciful…

    …as America having a common interest with Saudi Arabia (terrorism #1b, theocracy (cat: non-revolutionary).

  16. Hey Matt. I always give you credit, even when we disagree.

    You get credit for Bolton, but boy, I watched Independents when you had Eli Lake on. The fact that not one of you challenged one of the standard bearers for the Iraq War on ANYTHING was very disappointing.

    Not only was he one of the mouthpieces for the Iraq War, he is constantly urging all kinds of intervention in the Mideast…Libya, Syria…you name it.

    How could not one of you challenge him? I can see you having him on for his opinion, but he basically chastised the President for playing a willing hand in letting the “entire Mideast go up in flames.”

    That’s lots more foreign intervention with our military, my friend. All of you at Reason condemn that, and yet sit quietly when you have a chance to condemn it BEFORE it happens. Not a good moment for you, I don’t think.

  17. How is Bolton even on TV? What is his job? Why does his opinion MATTER?

    1. My understanding is that he’s employed by Fox. They want him, probably, because he’s controversial. And let’s face it–Bolton’s a hero to establishment Republican neocons.

      Matt’s biting the hand that feeds him a little bit here, at Fox, and that’s kinda completely awesome.

  18. The reason removing Saddam Hussein from power was wrong was because it wasn’t in America’s interests to do so.

    Certainly, the terrorists taking over Iraq now are a bigger security threat to American interests now than Saddam Hussein was in 2003. And if what we got for thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of American wounded, and $2.5 trillion in tax payer money was a bigger threat to American interests now than it was before we paid that price, then removing Saddam Hussein from power was a mistake*. Incidentally, removing Saddam Hussein from power also strengthened Iran’s hand in the region, which is also bad for American interests–especially considering Iran’s WMD program and it’s long range missile program.

    A good analogy would be North Korea today. North Korea represents a bigger security threat to American interests today than Saddam Hussein did in 2003. Who here thinks it’s in America’s bests interests to invade North Korea right now? Does John Bolton think we should invade North Korea?

  19. Bolton is one of the biggest assholes!

  20. Matt- I pulled up this column moments after rewatching your exchange with Bolton on the Independents’ Labor Day 2014 clip show. I just wanted to thank you for having the intellectual integrity to follow-through and give us all the facts in this excellent piece. For one thing, I always love to read Orwell’s essay material on political language and rhetoric; I hadn’t read “As I Like” before and it was a treat.

    Thanks for trying to get to the truth instead of scoring debate points. Despite all the chaos, bombast, and bluster to be seen nightly on “The Independents,” this apparent purpose of you and your co hosts is a key reason that I tune in as often as I can.

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